There is something fun and inspirational about the wide variety of tones available in digital modeling. There is also something visceral and pleasing about the sound and feeling of standing in front of a fire-breathing tube amplifier. For many years, each of these approaches to tonal bliss seem to be at odds with each other. The digital youngsters yelling “you’re a biased old tube man!” while the traditionalists yell at these upstarts “it’s just not natural!”
What if I told you there was a way to have both?
Sound too good to be true? But wait, THERE’S MORE!
IT CAN SOUND GOOD!
(ok, enough of that)
It really is simple: Plug a digital modeling preamp into a tube power amp. The biggest complaint I hear from guitarists about digital modeling is it doesn’t feel like a tube amp. The “sagging” and “compression” that comes from a tube power amp, as well as the physical feeling of the soundwaves hitting you is something that most digital modeling hasn’t perfected, yet. Yes, some of the higher end devices have gotten very close, but on this blog I focus on the budget conscious.
This concept first came to me when Line 6 released the Spider Valve, which combined the preamp models of its Spider series with a Bogner designed tube power amp. I picked one up dirt cheap used not long after they came out. It had the great flexibility of all the different preamps, but with the oomph and warmth of the tubes cooking in the power amp. It was LOUD and flexible. After that I bought the Fender Super Champ XD as more of a grab n’ go amp (it was super light). Same concept as the Spider Valve.
What really helped each of these amps too were great speakers. The Spider Valve came stock with a Celestion Vintage 30, and I upgraded the Super Champ XD with an Eminence Ragin Cajun. As I’ve said in previous blogs, speakers are extremely important to good tone. But that’s a different story….
Not long after that, I got a Line 6 HD500, which was a big step forward as far as budget adjacent modeling at the time. It allowed turning off cab simulation, as well as using models of only preamps. I also had a Crate Palomino V8 amp, which is a funky little tube amp with an effects loop. The preamp on this amp never sounded good to me, the tone knob went from too dark to too bright with no in-between. So the gears turned in my empty noggin, and it struck me to use a preamp-only model in the digital world, and plug it in to the power amp of this funky little tube amp. And what do you know, it actually sounded good! I started plugging that pedal into every amp I had. In the front, in the back, trying every combination possible.
Granted, this concept is not very new, I’d seen rig rundowns of professionals running Axe-Fx’s into rackmount tube power amps for a while. But that’s all expensive, professional gear. I was doing this on an amateur’s budget.
Ok, But How?
This works best if you have an amplifier with an effects loop, which may also just be labelled “preamp out” and “power amp in.” When you plug something just into the effects return, or power amp in, it completely bypasses the preamp in the amplifier. I’ve found this doesn’t work so well if your amp doesn’t have an effects loop. You can get some interesting sounds by just plugging the modeler into the normal input of the amp, but the preamp of the amplifier will color it too much.
On the digital modeler, in my case the Line 6 HD, I choose a model that is the preamp only, which doesn’t provide the emulation of a tube power amp. I also turn the cabinet simulation off. The speaker in your amplifier negates the need for that. Plus, if you run cabinet emulation through a real guitar speaker, I think you’ll rip a hole in time and space too. Maybe that’s an exaggeration. Either way, it usually does not provide the sonic qualities you’re looking for.
From there, you can start twisting knobs and see what exciting new tones await! You can have presets that will take you from a blackface Fender clean to all out Dual Rectifier roar at the stomp of a footswitch, all in the same rig.
Now, if you’re a multi-platinum professional artist, you can tour with whatever rigs you want, and you’re probably not reading my little ol’ blog anyways. For us mere mortals, funds are an issue. This approach, to me, is really the most useful when playing live. I’ve tried gigging in dive bars with just a POD going direct to the PA without an amp on stage or a great PA. While the tones tended to balance out in the back of the room, the space on and in front of the stage it just seemed to be lacking. This allowed me the flexibility of a bunch of models and the feel and presence on the stage.
The end result of the tone is really dependent on what tubes you’re using (6L6 vs 6V6 vs EL84 vs EL34) and the type of speaker you’re using. A 1×12 combo with 6V6 tubes and a Jensen alnico speaker isn’t going to sound exactly like a fire breathing Marshall plexi stack, but it’ll be in the ballpark. You’re also not going to get a Marshall stack to sound like a Supro. But, the tone stack and general clipping characteristics of each of the amps modeled will be there. It will definitely at least be close enough to get barflies dancing.
It’s also a great tool to create unique tones. If you have a EL34 based amp with Vintage 30 type speakers, putting a Blackface tone stack on that power section can create an unconventional tone. Unconventional tones are the tones that everyone remembers. Or a vintage Vox tone stack into a Fender power amp and speaker can take than chime and fatten it up a bit. The world is your tonal oyster.
Here is a video I did comparing the tones of the digital preamp into a tube power amp vs an all digital amp model.
Anyways. Happy experimenting.